Few academics in the UK will have read the writings of Peter Sloterdijk, but in Germany he is a superstar. His 1983 book Critique of Cynical Reason remains the best-selling philosophical work written in German since Heidegger's Being and Time, and Sloterdijk has co-hosted the popular television programme Philosophical Quartet for almost a decade. In the UK and the US such attention is at best lavished on popularisers. Even Bertrand Russell and Slavoj Žižek are not quite the household names that Sloterdijk has become in Germany: a kind of Jonathan Ross for the intellectually curious, yet also famous for developing his own controversial theses, themselves frequently requiring much interpretation and explication.
Bubbles is the first volume of his 2,500-page trilogy Spheres, which appeared between 1998 and 2004. This is its first appearance in English, and Sloterdijk could not have hoped for a better translator than Wieland Hoban (who has previously translated Sloterdijk's Derrida, an Egyptian and Theodor Adorno's Letters to his Parents). Hoban's background in music ensures that the text flows in perfect rhythm, and there is not a moment at which the reader senses any distance between the words on the page and their author. His meticulousness is indicative of the good care that has been given to the edition as a whole, although a book this size would have greatly benefited from an index of terms, as well as of the images reproduced. We may hope that the final tome will provide one for the trilogy as a whole.
The trilogy attempts to do for space what Heidegger did for time, although exactly what this is remains a matter of debate in both cases. Sloterdijk's project is essentially a revisionary history of selected ideas, synthesised to reveal a non-accidental attachment to spatial metaphor, from womb to tomb. Bubbles presents us with a re-conception of the "micro-space" of the self or individual, while the as yet untranslated second and third volumes (Globe and Foam) focus on macroscopic formations relating to the Earth and inter-galactic amorphousness, respectively. The metaphysics that emerge are similar in style to that of Sartre's ontology of slime, recently parodied in La Métaphysique du Mou, credited to the fictional author Jean-Baptiste Botul (whose spoof book La vie sexuelle d'Emmanuel Kant was embarrassingly appealed to in earnest by Bernard-Henri Levy last year). The fact that Sloterdijk's work is similarly susceptible to such parody is a telling sign of both its weaknesses and its strengths.
Sloterdijk's "archeology of the intimate" aims to reveal physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual spaces that have been hidden from us in plain view. All forms of loss, it is suggested, occur when one or more of these spheres of existence shatters. The argument enjoys aesthetic integrity, but relies on sly forms of equivocation and amphiboly to go through, not least that of switching from the idiomatic to the literal. The book's hypnotic narratives at times invoke mystical associations reminiscent of the early poetry of Leonard Cohen, but in the end the bubbles all burst. The layered form of Sloterdijk's offering peels off to reveal nothing but a little unripe fruit; hungry readers are advised to stick with Heidegger.
Bubbles contains dozens of images of craft and art works by Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dalí, Leonardo da Vinci, Federico Fellini, Giotto, Pirro Ligorio, John Everett Millais, Odilon Redon, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol and others united via a preoccupation with oval and circular shapes. These are not intended to illustrate the work, we are told, but to offer a "parallel narrative" to the author's "exploration of bubbles". Whatever one makes of this distinction, the images (many of which are discussed in the main text) seem, like his other references, to function as evidence that the theme of bubbles is no mere projection, but has been deeply present in the world since the dawn of pre-history. The effect is initially compelling, until one has the obvious thought that the same trick could have been played with triangles, squares, lines or whatever. Either way, Sloterdijk missed a trick by not including the art of Storm Thorgerson, René Laloux's animated picture La Planète Sauvage and Paul Simon's song The Boy in the Bubble. The last of these includes the lyric "medicine is magical and magical is art", which functions as an uncanny summary of one of the book's background themes.
For over-determined reasons, it is unlikely that the English publications of Sloterdijk's magnum opus will cause the stir that the original German editions did, but it will be interesting to see whether the author's work will come to have any kind of impact on anglophone philosophy.
Bubbles: Spheres Volume 1 - Microspherology
By Peter Sloterdijk, translated by Wieland Hoban
Published 25 November 2011